THE BRAVE NEW WORLD OF MANUEL CASTELLS - Part 2 of Paper
A review article
Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.
Blackwell Publishers: Malden (Mass) and Oxford. Vol. I: The Rise of the
Network Society. 1996. 556pp. Vol. II: The Power of Identity. 1997. 461pp.
Vol. III: End of Millennium. 1998. 418pp
The increasing reality of the virtual
I have suggested that the essence of Castells' argument is that
communication and culture are increasingly in command. This is most
clearly revealed in his understanding, on the one hand, of networking and,
on the other, of the media.
Networking. Let us firstly consider Castells on networking.
Although coming from Spain, or, rather, Catalonia, and partially educated
in France, Castells does not share the Latin penchant for refusing to
define often complex or ambiguous terms. So, revea ling his own globalised
intellectual itinerary, he treats us to an Anglo-Saxon-type definition.
True, network: definition of, is not in the index, so you do have to first
read 469 pages of CI to find it. But here it is, somewhat abbreviated:
A network is a set of interconnected nodes. A node is the point at which a
curve intersects itself...The topology defined by networks determines that
the distance...between two points...is shorter if both points are nodes in
a network than if they do not belong to the same network...The
inclusion/exclusion in networks, and the architecture of relationships
between networks, enacted by light-speed operating information
technologies, configurate dominant processes and functions in our
societies [...] A netw ork-based social structure is a highly dynamic,
open system, susceptible to innovating without threatening its balance.
Networks are appropriate instruments for a capitalist economy based on
innovation, globalisation, and decentralised concentration; for work,
workers, and firms based on flexibility, and adaptability; for a culture
of endless deconstruction and reconstruction; for a polity geared towards
the instant processing of new values and public moods; and for a social
organisation aiming at the su ppression of space and the annihilation of
time. Yet the network morphology is also a source of dramatic
reorganisation of power relationships...The convergence of social
evolution and information technologies has created a new material basis
for the perf ormance of activities throughout the social structure. This
material basis, built in networks, earmarks dominant social processes,
thus shaping social structure itself. (CII, 470-471)
This is communication as what I would call a 'relational form' (the
previously dominant social relational form being the organisation). Now
for communication as culture.
Media. It is in Castells' chapter about the media that we begin to
see that what could be conceived of as a development within capitalism is,
simultaneously, an epochal transformation. The present integration of most
modes of communication into a meta-la nguage, combining the written, oral
and audiovisual, is compared by Castells to the invention of the alphabet
in Greece, 2,700 years ago! That technical revolution led simultaneously
to the possibility of conceptual discourse and to a separation/hierarchy ,
in which the word of the intellectual and scientist were privileged over
the sound and image of the emotional, the ritual and the popular (at least
by the intellectual and scientist). There is here at least a suggestion
that we are moving toward a re-co mbination not only of these modes of
expression or communication but also a re-encounter between the classes or
categories that began to be divided nearly three thousand years ago. In
some areas this is already occurring, as the specialists of the (emanci
patory) word begin to be replaced by those of the (emancipatory) image
In CI, Part 5, Castells provides us with a short and pithy history
of the mass media (or media massification), recognising the centralisation
and homogenisation, whilst rejecting notions of a passive and infinitely
manipulable audience. This will be fami liar to radical media specialists
but is nonetheless welcome in a work of general social theory. Castells
then deals with the recent development of the increasingly
decentralised/diversified electronic media on the one hand, that of the
Internet on the ot her, and with the implications of their coming merger
for the future. First, then, on the developing culture of 'real
virtuality'. The latter is a system in which reality itself (that is,
people's material/symbolic existence) is entirely captured, fully immersed
in a virtual image setting, in the world of make believe, in which
appearances are not just on the screen through which experience is
communicated, but they become the experience. (CI:373. Original stress)
He gives us, as illustration, the case in which Dan Quayle (I understand
he was a Vice-President of the US and a potential presidential candidate)
came into conflict with Murphy Brown (female character in a TV soap of
that name, who had decided to become a single mother). Murphy Brown later
incorporated the Dan Quayle TV interview, and Murphy Brown responded
forcefully to it. The `fictional' Murphy Brown won, the 'real' (if
improbable) VP lost. We could probably take a more-recent and complex
case, that o f Princess Diana, both largely created and destroyed by the
mass media, which then found itself `mediating' forceful public revulsion
against itself, and making its own criticism of the British monarchy (a
creation, it should be remembered of industrialis ing capital,
nation-state creation, the democratisation of liberalism...and the rise of
the popular press). What on earth - or in the ether - is going on here?
Castells argues that the new and increasingly integrated
communication system is both comprehensive and inclusive, to the point of
marginalising other modes of cultural expression:
Only presence in this integrated system permits communicability and
socialisation of the message. All other messages are reduced to individual
imagination or to increasingly marginalised face-to-face subcultures. From
society's perspective, electronically -based communication (typographic,
audiovisual, or computer-mediated) is communication. (CI:374. Original
Since the new system is diversified, multimodal and versatile, it allows
for all forms of expression, including those of social conflict. The price
paid for entry, however, is that of adapting to the logic of the system,
such as it is or may become. This makes quite crucial the current battle
over the model chosen, over whether this is to be of the Internet type
(horizontal and multinodal) or of the video-on-demand one (which actually
means choosing between options offered by a central controller). Other
crucial battles concern accessibility, in the sense both of barriers to
entry and of passwords for circulation and diffusion of messages. These
battles will determine who are, in Castells' words, the interacting and
Whilst this suggests a general terrain of struggle for
democratisation of the new media, it is clear from Castells' treatment of
social movements in the global arena - both reactive and proactive - that
these are increasingly aware of, active on, and eve n successful within,
the new terrain. The media-consciousness - even media-centredness - of
Greenpeace is only hinted at in his treatment (CII:118-119), but Castells
waxes poetical, as he occasionally does in this work, about the movement
as a whole 'tap- dancing with the media' (CII:128). He also recognises, as
earlier mentioned, the pioneering role of the environmental movement,
particularly in use of the Internet for organising and mobilising (it has
also long used it for accessing and processing govern ment data for
radically non-governmental ends, as recognised long ago in Downing 1989).
And here we come to the other side of the network society. Through
computer networks grassroots groups around the world become suddenly able
to act globally, at the level where the main problems are created. It
seems that a computer-literate elite is emerging as the global,
co-ordinating core of grassroots environmental action groups arou nd the
world, a phenomenon not entirely dissimilar to the role played by artisan
printers and journalists at the beginning of the labour movement,
orienting, through information to which they had access, the illiterate
masses that formed the working class
of early industrialisation. (CII:130)
The Zapatistas have also made effective use of the Internet to circumvent
the official media and censorship within Mexico, to both inform and
mobilise a national, regional, North American and world public in their
own defence. Castells recognises the exte nt to which the movement, and
its communications-educated spokesperson, Marcos, have created attractive,
intriguing and challenging images of themselves for the mass media
(CII:76-9). What he does not mention - though it would be consistent with
his gener al model of social movements - is the Zapatista impact also on
or through low-technology artefacts, such as posters and dolls. (I had a
teeny-weeny, armed and masked, cloth female Zapatista doll beside my
computer in Quito when I first drafted this passag e, even if there was a
giraffe-legged, blond-haired, anorexic, plastic gringa Barbie doll in the
bathroom of the same house).
This is an important point (I mean the Zapatista, not the Barbie,
one) and it challenges Castells' argument that 'from society's
perspective' there is no communication that is not electronic. Apart from
doubts about whether society (rather than classes a nd categories within
different societies) has or have a perspective, Castells himself states
somewhere in his 1,400 pages - or was it someone else? - that succeeding
communication forms or technologies do not replace earlier ones but,
rather, supplement t hem. I see no particular reason, apart, of course,
for capitalist ones, why the new electronic media should not stimulate
rather than destroy earlier forms. One hopes so, since otherwise Castells
has chosen (and I am reviewing) a medium of expression that relates not
simply to a passing phase of capitalism but also, apparently, to a passing
epoch of written and printed communication!
Time, space and information capitalism
I have left space, time and flows - the most abstract and abstruse
part of the argument - for last. In his understanding of space and time
under a GNC Castells is developing and specifying previous conceptions of
space-time compression and intensificatio n, the increasing
socio-geographic stretch of 'society', the increasing domination of space
over time (Harvey 1989). His dominating and alienating network consists of
a 'space of flows', opposed to a non-informatised 'space of places'
(CI:423-428), and of 'timeless time', opposed to previous experiences and
senses of such - and to a possible alternative future one (CI:464-468).
Let's have a closer look at space and time. It helps if one
already has a notion of space that is not place-bound - as psychological
space for personality development; or, indeed, electronic space that,
whilst both invisible and intangible, is one that w e relate to when
watching TV; or that one can increasingly enter, as with virtual-reality
helmets in amusement arcades. It also helps if one is familiar with the
notion that time is relational: that relevant time, and measures of such,
have varied histori cally; vary according to whether we are concerned with
ecology, harvests, or making hamburgers make money; that time is also
class-determined, there being 'time ghettos' and 'time peaks', leading to
'time wars' (Rifkin 1987). It helps, finally, to be remi nded, as Castells
does remind us, that classical social theory (such as that of Marx)
assumed that time was the active and space the passive element, and that
time conquered space. Castells presents these as interacting and
mutually-defining, but evidentl y sees his space of flows as the dynamic
element in the relationship.
Space: Castells apologises for going into abstract theory here,
but he does provide pointers and maps to help us through the maze. Space,
he says, is the material base for social practices that share the same
time. Traditionally, this kind of space meant continguity, the
face-to-face community. Our society, however, is increasingly constructed
around flows - from those of capital and of organisational interaction to
those of sounds and symbols. This particular kind of space, that of flows,
is thus the ma terial base for time-sharing activity that works through
flows. As the material base of dominant process and functions under a GNC,
the space of flows combines three elements. The first is the circuit of
electronic signals, acting as the spatial equivalen t of the city or
region under earlier phases of capitalist development, and
defining/determining significant places as once railways defined economic
regions and national markets. The second support of the space of flows is
its hubs and nodes, as with the so-called global cities that concentrate
decision-making power, the continental or regional economies that relate
to/depend on them. The third element is the spatial organisation of
dominant elites. Here we are on more familiar, or at least tangible, ter
rain. Domination depends, he says, on the simultaneous capacity of these
elites to articulate themselves and disarticulate the masses. Basically,
he argues, 'elites are cosmopolitan, people are local' (CI:415). Elites,
firstly, form their own communities, made exclusive by their very cost,
within which major decisions can be taken and then be executed
electronically. Elites, secondly, create a global lifestyle and spatial
forms, as in exclusive and standardised airport lounges, indistinguishable
hotels, e ating/dieting, clothing, exercising and other practices.
Whilst I have difficulty understanding the more abstract
constituents of these spaces-that-are-not-places, I am simultaneously
wondering how they actively disorganise the masses rather than merely
excluding them, or exhibiting a lifestyle the excluded ca n either aspire
to or vicariously enjoy (as one non-mass friend of mine does The Bold and
the Beautiful). I also wonder whether it is not precisely in the third
element above that the global elites are localised, grounded - and
vulnerable. I am thinking o f the corporal activity and verbal discourse
of the American ex-autoworker and film-maker, the fat, funny and ferocious
Michael Moore (1996), whose stock in trade is precisely 1) the invasion
and desecration of these places, and 2) the deflation of those who - since
they are human - have to touch base somewhere. Elites are not only in
cosmopolitan electronic intangible space; people are not only in local
tangible place. Elites are not only smart and united; people are not only
dumb and divided. Michael M oore made his first movie by mortgaging his
house and organising cake-sales. Some US multi-media conglomerate thought
they could make money on a film defecating from a great height (well,
actually, from a considerable depth) on another US corporation or i
ndustry. They were right. If this is 'incorporation' it is of a funny (=
peculiar) kind. The BBC, I think, was co-sponsoring this US TV show which
was then being distributed internationally. Michael Moore does not simply
satirise the greedy corporate rich but challenges them in his TV show to
demonstrate they are not so. He pulls no punches. He starts one show
referring to the end of the 'evil empire' of Communism, and ends it by
saying, in reference to a neo-liberalised US, 'One evil empire down, one
to go'. This is like having Noam Chomsky on primetime TV! Or Marx's old
mole burrowing within the very heart of capitalist darkness. Michael Moore
actually uses a loud-hailer (a communication means from an earlier phase
of social-movement struggle), to which no-one on the street appears to be
listening, but which everyone with a TV can see. The Chief Executive
Officers - increasingly media personalities projecting a casually-dressed
(Grijpmar 1997) carefree and classless image - are caught on the horns of
a painful dilemma: to appear in Moore's TV space and reveal their greed,
or to refuse to do so and expose their cowardice. Moore is a new kind of
working-class hero. Unlike, Jesus Christ, Karl Marx or Che Guevara, he is
neither a Superstar nor a Superman. N ot even a Germaine Greer-type
Superwoman. What he does for workers and citizens, they can do for
themselves. Like he did. This is alternative video which has invaded
dominant TV space. It is popular in both senses: it expresses the material
deprivation a nd moral indignation of ordinary people and it is top-drawer
mass entertainment. Having previously doubted I could extend Gramsci's
'national-popular' into an 'international-popular', Michael Moore, the
Magic Medium, performing media magic, is making me t hink again...
Time: To match his notion of the space of flows, Castells brings
in that of timeless time. We are, perhaps, most familiar with the tendency
toward the latter in the form of the financial markets, operating 24 hours
a day, with quasi-instantaneous decisio n-making, leading to increasing
financial instability, to dramatic - and tragic - effects for vulnerable
national societies and poor people everywhere. Castells sees this model
being reproduced throughout the economy, society and culture -with similar
eff ects on those on the periphery of , or excluded from, the space of
Timeless time belongs to the space of flows, while time discipline,
biological time, and socially determined sequencing, characterise places
around the world, materially structuring and destructuring our segmented
societies. (CI: 465. Original stress)
Castells illustrates this with the contrasting use of the cellular phone.
It gives time/space advantages to those within the charmed circle. But it
is also being used by petty-traders in Lima, hiring them out to those
without access to phones and sufferin g 'maximum flexibility in endless
working days of unpredictable future' (465). Once again, I think, Castells
has allowed a real tension to become an absolute opposition. In the first
place, we cannot assume that the charm of quasi-ubiquitous, quasi-univer
sal and quasi-instantaneous communication for the elite individual is
going to outweigh its collective costs for the same elite - or even its
individual ones (think of the car). In the second place, his own example
shows how a symbol of globalised elite s tatus can be degraded into an
article of mass use (think of the car). And, in the third place, the
cellular phone can be used, and has been used, in the organisation of
strikes, pickets and demonstrations.
Conclusion: the war of the beginning of the world
I earlier suggested that, for Castells, what is presently
occurring is more than a change within capitalism, even if it is also
this. I have called it an epochal transformation. I think this is
suggested by Castells when he talks of a 'qualitative change in human
experience' (CI:477). Here he discusses historical transformations in
terms of the nature/culture relationship. The first epoch was that of the
domination of nature over culture. The second, at the beginning of the
modern age, saw the increasing domination of nature by culture. The third,
ours, sees the beginning of a new stage, in which culture refers to
culture - 'nature' itself being preserved, revived or reconstructed as a
cultural form. I also wonder (though this is not necessarily a though t of
Castells) that it might be just this epochal transformation that allows
for an emancipatory movement that could surpass capitalist barbarism
without degenerating into the socialist kind. This is how Castells himself
sees the matter at the very end of
[W]e have entered a purely cultural pattern of social organisation. This
is why information is the key ingredient of our social organisation and
why flows of messages and images between networks constitute the basic
thread of our social structure...[H]ist ory is just beginning, if by
history we understand the moment when...our species has reached the level
of knowledge and social organisation that will allow us to live in a
predominantly social world.. It is the beginning of a new existence, and
indeed the beginning of a new age...marked by the autonomy of culture
vis-à-vis the material bases of our existence. But this is not necessarily
an exhilarating moment. Because, alone at last in our human world, we
shall have to look at ourselves in the mirror of h istorical reality. And
we may not like the vision. (CI:478)
If this seems to express a fashionable fin de millenium pessimism, it
would seem to be in contradiction with Castells' own rejection of such.
And, indeed, the Conclusion to Volume II identifies as the main agency of
change under a GNC as a networking, decentred form of organisation and
intervention, characteristic of the new social movements, mirroring, and
counteracting, the networking logic of domination in the informational
society...These networks...are the actual producers, and distrib utors, of
cultural codes...their most successful campaigns, their most striking
initiatives, often result from 'turbulences' in the interactive network of
multlayered communication...It is this decentred, subtle character of
networks of social change that makes it so difficult to perceive, and
identify, new identity projects coming into being...It is in these back
alleys of society, whether in alternative electronic networks or in
grassrooted networks of communal resistance, that I have sensed the
embryos of a new society... (CII:362. Original emphasis)
So, after a first appearance as villain, the network now appears as
hero/ine. What was set up by Castells as an opposition between the Net and
the Self, now appears as new and pro-active social movements creating
subject identities, and impacting subtly b ut forcefully, on the GNC which
gave them birth and to which they are opposed. What initially appeared as
a binary opposition now appears as a dialectical relation. And this
dialectic is fought out within a globalised society in which culture is
increasin gly in command.
I am happy to see these dialectical relationships. I am also
wondering whether the other binaries that Castells either explicitly
announces or implicitly suggests would not benefit by similar treatment. I
am thinking of such as the space of flows (empty and abstract) versus the
space of places (historical and experienced), of old labour interest
movements (condemned to resistance) versus new gender/sexual identity ones
(engaged in transformation), virile resistance communities versus
declining civil soci eties, socially-significant multimodal and multinodal
electronic media versus individualised and marginalised subcultures. I am
not, for example, even happy with Castells' 'small elite versus mass of
the people'. It would be easier if this were true. Perh aps it once was.
But then, again, perhaps this was just a 'true lie', necessary to get
people to accept or adopt the simple identity and the simple opposition.
We are, in any case, today in a complex capitalist society, in which
capitalists have long aba ndoned the top hat, as have British workers the
cloth cap, French workers the bleu de travail. If we take a closer look at
the happily globalising elite and the unhappily globalised masses, I think
we will find just such complexity. There are, to start wi th, the famous
'intermediate categories in a contradictory class location' (Wright 1976),
to which Castells and I both belong, who may benefit from globalisation
and yet identify downwards and outwards. Then there are the differentiated
masses that differ entially enjoy at least aspects of globalisation -
cultural ones prominent amongst them. I don't really think there is a
fundamental problem here: to argue, continually, that everything is
simultaneously both this and that, and that every this contains it s that,
is exhausting for both speaker and listener. Castells is here surely doing
what we (of the Marxist tradition) all do when we tire of arguing or
demonstrating the dialectic: we simplify into a comprehensible, practical
- and hopefully mobilising - opposition.
But now we have to reconsider the Conclusion to CIII, which is
also a restatement of the whole argument (CIII:335-60). As far as labour
is concerned, I find this Conclusion thought-provokingly ambiguous:
The truly fundamental social cleavages of the Information Age are: first,
the internal fragmentation of labour between informational producers and
replaceable generic labour. Secondly, the social exclusion of a
significant segment of society made up of di scarded individuals whose
value as workers/consumers is used up, and whose relevance as people is
ignored. And, thirdly, the separation between the market logic of global
networks of capital flows and the human experience of workers' lives.
Here we have: 1) a binary opposition between two kinds of labour where I
would propose we rather look for a spectrum or even a matrix; 2) a binary
opposition between, presumably, any kind of labour and the excluded, where
I would again propose a spectrum /matrix; 3) a binary opposition between
capital and labour, in terms acceptable to a Marxist, and which surely
implies the necessity of a movement to emancipate labour (including those
excluded from it in a formal sense, but who are energetically engaged
in non-capitalist work and desperately seeking capitalist employment).
This discussion is followed by a reassertion of the transformatory
nature of feminism and environmentalism: Should institutions of society,
economy and culture truly accept feminism and environmentalism, they would
be essentially transformed. Using an old word, it would be a revolution.
(CIII:352) Maybe. But in so far as capitalists and pro-capitalist
ideologues are doing their utmost, with the help of powerful economic,
political and, above all, cultural institutions, to produce a feminised
and ecologically-sustainable capitalism, I see here no es sential
guarantees. It is more a question, surely, of combining the insights of
feminism, environmentalism and socialism, the human rights movements, the
cultural rights and communication movements (I could continue). But here
Castells steps out. Or at le ast back. Having `adamantly refused to
indulge in futurology' (CIII:353) he nonetheless yields to temptation,
producing a scenario of the Naisbitt/Lipnack-Stamps kind (CIII:353-8).
Then, under the title `What is to be Done', he both recognises the `consi
derable generosity' of the Marxist tradition, and abstains from joining or
continuing it. He simultaneously rejects the role of the neutral observer
and takes refuge in the tradition of critical sociology: Theory and
research...should be considered as a means for understanding and
relevance. How these tools are used, and for what purpose, should be the
exclusive prerogative of the social actors themselves, in specific social
contexts, and on behalf of their
values and interests. (CIII:359)
Castells' justification for his stance is, well, what happened
when Lenin answered his own question in 1902. I find this both inadequate
and disingenuous. It is inadequate because it suggests that academics are
not social actors (they are, actually, incr easingly massified ones), or
not inevitably related to social actors. And because it does not confront
any post-Leninist tradition of academic socio-political engagement - such
as the feminist one! It is disingenuous because Castells is evidently part
of a global and globalised intellectual elite, and admits (well, OK,
mentions in passing) that he 1) has been a member of the European
Commission's High Level Expert Group on the Information Society, 2) that
he is indebted to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the B razilian
philosopher/prince who is presiding over the insertion of his country into
a GNC, the wasting of its children and the destruction of its - and our -
environment, and 3) was the Chair of an advisory committee to the Russian
government in 1992, its elf responsible for introducing into Russia a
capitalism close to the Stalinist stereotype. Castells, thus, has been
hobnobbing with the elites responsible (or irresponsible) for many of the
ills he criticises. Moreover, he has actually been advising some
of the new masters of our universe.
I do not myself think this devalues his work. But it certainly
qualifies it. Or limits it. Castells has addressed himself to those who
were interested in, or wanted to pay for, his work. It is a matter of
regret for me that he did not continue the identi fication with social
movements revealed in his studies on urban ones. But I recognise, equally,
the weakness of the social movements - of a social movement - that could
appeal to and make use of such a brilliant and critically-minded
intellectual. This m ovement has yet to be born. Its birth, or maturation,
will require engagement with Castells' work: engagement with and not
polemical attack on. Any new general movement of society will have to be
able to dialogue across the lines created in simpler times. There is no
call for those claiming identity with the alternative social movements to
look down on him from any high moral ground. High moral ground nowadays
has to be used not for looking down but looking out.
For myself, and as I said at the beginning, I find the general
argument of Castells both reassuring and challenging. The reassurance
concerns my own project, set up largely in terms of the
industrial/informational, organisational/communicational, local/g lobal,
labour/women, socialist/ feminist dialectics. As for the challenge
presented by Castells, this may have been itself suggested by my struggles
with/against him. The challenge will also, therefore, be a matter of
re-reading and working through what I have not yet adequately read, and
what has been here only sketched. Yet another challenge will be that of
examining his conceptualisation more closely, and then adding, from my own
resources or reading, the necessary others. Fortunately, Castells does no
t extended his argument to cover international solidarity in its
contemporary dress, political and communicational forms, even where he
hints also at these. Fortunately, he only hints at the manner in which
social movements are beginning to create its own kind of global solidarity
culture. This leaves some something for some of the rest of us to do
during the neo-liberal winter - or what I suspect is likely to be its
The Hague, London, Lima, Quito, Seoul, Liverpool. July 1997-March 1998.
[Earlier versions of this review article, based on Volumes I and II, have
been or are being published in Debate (Johannesburg), No. 4, 1998, and in
Nueva Sociedad (Caracas), Forthcoming.]
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